Boris Becker is the No. 2 tennis player in the world for 1986, but he is No. 1 in the hearts of fans here and virtually everywhere else. The West German teen-ager with the grin as wide as the nearby Hudson lost to Ivan Lendl, 6-4, 6-4, 6-4, this week in the finals of the Nabisco Masters, a tournament designed to be a grand finale to the season. Lendl is clearly the best in his business. But Becker, a big gate attraction who received vociferous crowd support here, is clearly the next best and gaining, to the delight of the sport.
Said Becker afterward, ``I'll have to take my hat, go home, and see what I can do better for next year. It was an important match and I wanted to win too much. I tried too hard and got too tight. It was a learning experience. I have to stay cool at that level.''
The 26-year-old Lendl pointed intensely for the match, even if it wasn't a full-fledged major championship like the French and US Opens he won this year. He was perturbed at the rampant conjecture that Becker would soon be his successor at the top of the sport.
``People who thought he was to be No. 1 will have to wait awhile,'' Lendl said crisply. ``I have more areas for improvement than other players and I'm still getting better, too.
``Certainly he's the best of the other guys. There is nobody who plays as well as he does. [Mats] Wilander, [Stefan] Edberg, and [Joakim] Nystrom - they might have a shot at beating him on occasion, but Boris is a better player.''
When Lendl and his heir obvious face off, it's unabashed power against unabashed power. The liveliest argument in tennis today is over which one serves harder.
``Becker's serve is harder for me to handle,'' says Wilander, third behind Lendl and Becker in the Association of Tennis Professionals computer ranking. ``I worry about getting blown right off the court. He can ace you twice in a row, and Lendl doesn't do that very often.''
If his serve was a bat-of-the-eye less forceful than Becker's flame throwers, Lendl made up for it by putting his first serve in play more frequently than Becker and moving it around more intelligently. Lendl never faced a break point in three sets.
He also cannily changed the pace during rallies, frustrating Becker with a series of soft, sliced shots to his backhand. Becker's patience and strokemaking too often broke down under Lendl's clever probing.
``I have to keep my composure better,'' says Becker in English that is improving as rapidly as his game. ``My backhand is better, but needs to be better still. I'm taking the ball earlier and I can hit it hard because I'm stronger, but I have to move more quickly. Ivan is much faster on his feet.''
For the year, Becker finished by splitting six matches with Lendl. To qualify easily for the Masters, he successfully defended his singles title at Wimbledon and won five other tour events.
Starting the year ranked sixth, he eventually became the first player since John Newcombe in 1974 to win three straight tournaments on three continents (indoors in Sydney, Tokyo, and Paris).
He won 20 matches in a row until Lendl smacked down his streak at Madison Square Garden.
The husky strawberry blond, his thighs solid as large oaks, still throws himself at balls nearly beyond his reach, even on hard surfaces.
More often than not, he returns them, and he seems to have learned to roll with a fall rather than land with a crash.
The Becker bump is a big audience favorite now and much anticipated.
``He believes he can get to balls and that's why he gets to them,'' says Wilander. ``He isn't that fast, but he is eager, and when he runs balls down he gains confidence.''
Tennis experts criticize Becker's game because he seldom comes to the net behind his big serve and almost refuses to lob over an opponent who does. He can be stubborn and unbending in his tactics, even when they aren't working.
``That's just how young he is,'' says one past champion, reminding listeners that despite his many accomplishments, Boris is still only 19.
``Lendl was somewhat the same way a few years ago, and he's learned to vary his game and not rely so much on sheer strength, but it's better to start with the power and add the finesse later than try to do it the other way around.''
Becker promises he will be a more complete player in 1987, to which he's looking forward and believes we should be.
``It should be a good year for pro tennis,'' he says. ``I'm coming closer to Lendl, John McEnroe is making a good comeback, and the Swedes are right behind.'' Quotable quotes
John Elway, Denver Broncos quarterback, on his speed for 40 yards: ``I'm probably about a 4.9 normally, but when a 280-pound guy is chasing me, I'm 4.6.''
Sportscaster Bob Costas on the origin of one of the latest fads among American crowds: ``Claiming credit for the Wave is like taking credit for designing the leisure suit.''
Matt Goukas, coach of the Philadelphia 76ers, downplaying the strain of his job: ``Pressure? To me, the guy trying to support his family on $12,000 a year - that's pressure!''
Chris Ford, assistant coach of the Boston Celtics, describing scrappy guard Danny Ainge: ``He's the mosquito that keeps buzzing you. Before long, you want to grab the newspaper and take a swat at him.''
Michigan football coach Bo Schembechler: ``You can be the greatest coach in America and simply be at the wrong school. And a good coach in the wrong situation gets fired.''
Magic Johnson of the Los Angeles Lakers on Houston's Akeem Olajuwon, who reportedly speaks several languages: ``He only needs one - `Give me the ball.'''